Some background for my foreign friends: the guy reading from Mao’s Little Red Book is John McDonnell, Britain’s shadow chancellor of the exchequer, a title that sounds ominously Sith-like but actually just means that he is the guy who would be in charge of Britain’s economy if his party ever got into power. He is basically the second in command to the current ‘far-left’ incarnation of the Labour Party; think an old-school Yanis Varoufakis, but less sexy and with less academic clout.
Opposite him sits Gideon Osborne, now called George since he changed his name to sound less posh. George/Gideon is Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer: governing the fifth biggest economy in the world, he has administered one of the largest transfers of public assets into private hands that Britain has ever seen. If his plans go ahead, the 2015–16 tax year will see the biggest wave of state asset privatization ever in Britain, much of this, as you may have guessed from watching the video, being sold off to the Chinese government.
To assist comrade Osborne in his dealings with his new found comrades, I have brought along Mao’s Little Red Book…
McDonnell quotes from the Little Red Book, tongue firmly in cheek, as a theatrical way of criticizing the Conservatives’ cozy ‘relationshop’ with the Chinese. Besides staging a not particularly funny stunt, McDonnell’s main blunder here is to mistake the nature of contemporary political speech—not simply theater, but spectacle.
Political theater, already a jaded imitation of debate, at least incorporates the nuances of context, delivery, significant pauses, veiled hints, impersonated accents, argument, and the subtleties of dialectics. Spectacle, the brattish next generation of political spin, plays to the decontextualized sound bites of newspaper headlines, to the endless troll armies of twitter. Half-truths kept snappy! Political theater impersonates discussion, performing a conversation and balancing the immediacy of an argument while playing to a wider invisible audience. The spectacle is the opposite of dialogue, divorced rather than merely separated, needs no context, is representation detached from its signifier: headline, GIF, JPEG. Punch-line politics, flaccid as a summarized joke: Veteran left-winger quotes murderous Mao.
The House of Commons debate was Labour’s chance to respond to the Conservative Party’s dodgy autumn spending review. The full debate saw McDonnell antagonize and question the Conservatives’ zealous everything-must-go! public asset sell-offs, the accounting wizardry that saw an extra £25 billion appear from down the back of the sofa, and the unaffordable ‘affordable’ housing that the Conservatives had championed. The video of McDonnell’s limp joke and Osborne’s response has, however, effectively become the only document of the day. The excerpt quickly became ubiquitous in both the left- and right-wing press. Guy Debord wrote: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” 1Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 12. In the hyper-networked world of supposedly short attention spans, modern political debate can either be caught by or spin the web, vying for that entertainment dollar with image, caption, slogan, tweet: this is Spin 2.0.
Oh look! It’s his own personal signed copy!
For the politically disillusioned, ‘debate’ is now about the concise manipulation of perspective and perception… or at least that is one way to look at it. Osborne chooses not to engage with the content of his opponent’s argument which he understands full well, but rather to deliberately misconstrue the event, choosing to take the sarcasm at face value: “I can’t believe the shadow chancellor literally stood at the dispatch box and read from Mao’s Little Red Book!” Osborne values and interprets the statement already with tabloid headlines in mind and by deliberately misconstruing the sentiment, condemns McDonnell to the humiliation of having to explain a joke.
The ranks of Conservatives cackle loudly from the benches, not only at the naïvety of bringing dialectics to a sloganeering fight, but safe in the knowledge that their laughter itself will cement the events subsequent reportage in their favor. *
To the right of Osborne’s vampiric grin sits the British prime minister with his face on the cusp of a gleeful explosion. Opposite, McDonnell glows embarrassment red amid the heads-in-hands of his fellow Labour MPs. For their part, many of the Labour back benchers would like to distance themselves from the current left-wing incarnation of their own front bench, praying perhaps for an internal Blairite coup. The chortling Conservatives opposite showing, to their credit, more unity in their mocking celebrations, making sense of the collective noun party of politicians (albeit a sausage-fest with a male to female ratio of around 4:1).
Labour’s shadow chancellor responds by approvingly quoting Chairman Mao, the Chinese communist dictator who murdered twenty million people.
—The Sun (Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, Murdoch owned)
Dubbed “Apocalypse Mao” by the tabloids, for the right-wing press the Red Book incident became more fodder for increasing vitriol against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity front bench. The press response was hysterical. That is hysterical, as in exaggerated excitement and panic driven. Not unbelievably hilarious. When the bulk of political reportage is engaged in a race for Mao-themed puns any expectation of actual debate is rendered as hopeless as looking for a fart in a Jacuzzi. Political journalism: they think it’s all over… it is Mao.
The controversy is not the shit joke, or even the disingenuous rebuttal, but the general media’s willingness for the video at the top of this page to summarize—or rather, overshadow—current debate of a policy that will impact millions of people, and by the looks of things, for generations to come. Of course playing up to fear-mongering publications that both cater to and further stimulate a climate of mass hysteria is an ongoing tactic of the Right, especially the current Conservative Party. Historically they (and their international counterparts) have relied on promoting social anxiety and uncertainty, subsequently selling themselves as cure.
Not long ago the prime minister himself took Corbyn deliberately out of context, choosing to quote him as saying “Osama Bin Laden’s death was a tragedy,” failing to clarify that the stated tragedy was the nonexistent attempt to arrest and sentence the man. If all accusations of Labour’s new leadership were to be believed then we would have a pack of communist-jihadist-murdering-pacifists who want to ban football (a combination, I should add, that I would be curious to see).
Speeches by international finance ministers are usually exceptionally boring, I suspect deliberately so in an attempt to disinterest the casual listener. Osborne’s speeches, however, stand out for their Machiavellian lyricism. Littered with metaphors and a language of inevitability, his delivery is simultaneously determined and yet non-committal, evocative yet vague: “This time we’re going to fix the roof whilst the sun still shines!”
McDonnell’s speech is in response to Osborn’s autumn spending review, a review so bleak that the biggest cheer came from his announcement that the Conservatives were doing nothing by not cutting the police budget. Prior to his bungled Mao skit, McDonnell takes Osborne to task over dubious and rushed public asset sales, his failure to eliminate the country’s deficit despite his intense austerity program, and furthermore accusing him of a general economic illiteracy.
Prior to his appointment to the Conservative front bench, Osborne had little experience in finance or economics: studying history at university, later working as a journalist and subsequently as a speechwriter to former Conservative leader William Hague. Playing to these strengths, “Apocalypse Mao” is a perfect example of his ability to wriggle out of debates with the sleazy skill of a buttered gigolo. The art of the quick-thinking comeback honed in the playgrounds of England’s top private schools: deflect, deflate, ridicule. Economic illiteracy perhaps, but veiled by a sophistic fluency.
Sophistic fluency? I take that back. I remember a common English schoolyard rebuttal for any insult: “I know you are but what am I?”—an infuriatingly imbecilic refusal to acknowledge: still the debater’s trump card at the forefront of real-time spin.
In a strange twist to this ‘controversy’ I recently stumbled across an older article from the staunchly conservative Daily Mail on the life and career of George Osborne. It reads: “As well as a poster of Winston Churchill on his bedroom wall as a child, Osborne also had Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. His mother Felicity—a fluent Mandarin speaker—brought one back from China when he was a little boy” (3 October 2015).
That Osborne himself, despite his accusations, is the one to own a well-thumbed “personal copy” simply reinforces his cynicism of honest political debate and the democratic project overall. A cynicism that will most likely serve him well as either the next prime minister or else as a highly-paid executive heading up some foundation advising a sandy state like Dubai on how to bid for the Winter Olympics.